HTC Rhyme Review: Hardware, pH-Balanced

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As a male tech writer, Verizon Wireless’ HTC Rhyme is not a phone I would buy for myself. Its plum exterior appeals to more feminine tastes, and its tech specs are far from the cutting edge.

Still, I was happy to take the HTC Rhyme for a spin on a loaner device provided for review. It’s an intriguing handset, with a focus on industrial design and useful accessories instead of raw power. For that combination, Verizon is charging $200 on-contract. But beyond the Rhyme’s skin-deep beauty, is the premium price justified? Read on to find out.

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On the outside, the Rhyme lives up to its promise with a tasteful blend of soft-touch material—it feels almost leather-like—and aluminum, which runs around the phone’s edges and in a stripe through the backside. Grab the Rhyme off a table after a few minutes of idle time, and it’ll be cool to the touch, its rounded edges fitting easily in your hand. The curvy design reminds me of Apple’s iPhone 3GS, but a hair thinner and with classier materials and a slightly larger 3.7-inch display. On curb appeal alone, the Rhyme earns high marks.

Internally, the hardware is nothing special, with a 1 GHz processor, 768 MB of RAM, a 5-megapixel camera in back, a VGA camera up front, 4 GB of on-board storage and an 8 GB microSD card pre-installed. I didn’t notice any glaring hardware issues, but the software stuttered a bit while installing apps, and compared to the Super AMOLED Plus screen on my Samsung Galaxy S II, the Rhyme’s Super LCD screen doesn’t have quite as much pop.

Once you start playing around with the phone, the Rhyme’s character flaws start to show. The base software is Android 2.3, which I won’t review in detail. (For that, you can read our Nexus S review.) But in short, I love Android’s customization options, its turn-by-turn directions, its widgets and its excellent Google apps. I don’t like how it can be buggy and choppy on older hardware, and how the latest and greatest apps tend to launch on the iPhone first. Your choice in phone should have a lot to do with whether you value Android’s perks enough to tolerate its weaknesses.

In the case of HTC phones, you also must consider your feelings for Sense, the user interface that HTC applies to all its Android phones. I’ve never cared much for Sense—it’s always been a crisp-looking interface whose low framerate looks unappealing when set in motion—and it’s no better in the Rhyme. Sure, recent Sense updates have introduced an excellent lock screen, with shortcuts to common apps like e-mail, texts, the camera and phone calls. And the photo filters in Sense’s camera app are lots of fun. But getting around the interface can be a chore, thanks to a carousel view of your home screens that spins out of control if you swipe too fast. The latest version of Sense also sports a new look for its app tray and phone buttons, which follow you across home screens, but they only draw attention to the need for more docked buttons, for tasks like text messaging and web browsing.

The Rhyme’s version of Sense also features a new home screen widget that’s as pretty as it is frustrating. It occupies the entire screen, and includes the date, time and weather in the bottom-right corner, and a row of sliding notification tabs on the left side for mail, messages, calendar and photos. You can tap each tab to slide out more information, but why you’d keep them stowed away is beyond me, because there’s nothing to see on the screen underneath. Although you can customize these tabs to include other apps, only the four default apps can show live information on the home screen. The widget is removable, of course, but I’m ranting about it because it sums up the entire HTC Sense experience—a well-meaning interface undermined by puzzling decisions.

So far, I haven’t described a phone that’s worth $200, but Verizon’s hoping that the Rhyme’s bundled accessories bring the value in line with the $200 price tag. I might agree, if the included speaker dock kicked a bit more bass, and displayed incoming e-mails and text messages. Right now, it only shows time, weather, music controls and a couple app icons, limiting its functionality. The Rhyme also includes a cubic “Charm” that attaches by cord to the headphone jack and lights up for calls and texts, and a set of “tangle-free” earbuds, which, despite my best efforts, would not tangle.

With the Rhyme, HTC has proven that it can design elegant hardware. But the phone’s mid-range specs and my lack of enthusiasm for HTC Sense make me hesitant to recommend the Rhyme for the ladies, at least not for the same price as the iPhone and other high-end handsets. A price drop might make this beauty worth a second look later on.

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